Hamburg Confucius split latest sign of German caution over China

University’s international head says institutions have been ‘naive’ over global partnerships

July 30, 2020
A man walking past looks at a statue of Chinese philosopher Confucius
Source: Getty
A man walking past looks at a statue of Chinese philosopher Confucius

The University of Hamburg has decided to cut ties with its Confucius Institute over fears that Beijing could use it as “propaganda instrument”, in the latest sign of a more wary stance in Germany towards Chinese government influence on campus.

Compared with the US, German institutions have up to now taken a more relaxed approach, but a number of scandals involving perceived threats to academic freedom appear to have changed the debate.

Hamburg would have been “blind” not to notice “the quite critical view of Confucius Institutes in other countries and the fear – perceived or real – that the institutes are used or misused as propaganda instruments”, Courtney Peltzer-Hönicke, head of the university’s department of international affairs, told Times Higher Education.

“Obviously that’s something that has no place at a university,” she said. “We do not want any government organisation influencing what our researchers and students work on.”

Of the more than 500 Confucius institutes globally, 19 are based in Germany. On the whole, their stated aim is to teach Chinese language and culture.

But they have been dogged by accusations of meddling in academic freedom, and a wave of universities have cut ties in recent years, chiefly in the US. Sweden shut the last of its institutes earlier this year.

The risk of Confucius Institutes is that they limit – or are put under pressure to limit – free discussion of topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Taiwanese independence or Tibet, Ms Peltzer-Hönicke argued.

Hamburg’s decision to withdraw from the association underpinning the institute, which will come into effect next year, was not related to any specific recent incident, she explained. “It’s more of a general pre-emptive measure, looking at other countries,” she said.

However, six years ago the institute’s Chinese co-director was unexpectedly recalled to China after the institute hosted an event on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, she said.

Carsten Krause, director of the Hamburg Confucius Institute, did not address this incident when contacted by THE.

“We absolutely regret the ‘concern’ by the University of Hamburg, and we especially regret...its lack of conversation about such a concern”, he said.

There was no reason why the institute should close despite Hamburg withdrawing its support, he stressed. It is now looking for a new German partner.

As tensions between China and the West have risen this year over concerns ranging from Hong Kong’s new security law to the use of Huawei technology in digital infrastructure, Germany’s government has struck a relatively muted tone, emphasising continued economic ties with its largest trading partner.

But there are signs the issue is now rising up the agenda among German universities. In February, it emerged that the Free University of Berlin had accepted hundreds of thousands of euros from the Chinese government to set up a professorship and had signed a contract binding it to Chinese law, risking academic independence, in the eyes of critics.

The University of Bonn is also reviewing the arrangement that it has with its Confucius Institute. A spokesman said that the “cooperation in general is not in question”.

“Rather it is our aim to review details of the agreement and to rule out any potential influence on science by third parties,” he said.

“I think perhaps we at German institutions have been a bit naive,” said Ms Peltzer-Hönicke, but this was now changing. “And I think the world of global partnerships in universities is changing somewhat, down to global changes in the political realm. It doesn’t just apply to China.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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